How preserving the Kirtland Temple points people to God

Latter-day Saints and others react to the Church’s acquisition of the temple and explain how their testimonies are strengthened by experiences there

Followers of Jesus Christ have long preserved artifacts of religious significance.

In ancient times, for example, there was Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17), manna in a jar (Exodus 16:32-33) and the stone tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 10:2).

“They preserved [these artifacts] for a reason,” said Elder Kyle S. McKay, General Authority Seventy who is the Church historian and recorder. “It was to point them to events but, most of all, to point them to the God who was guiding them.”

Similarly, in modern times, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints value religious artifacts for the ways in which they strengthen testimonies of the Savior and of the Restoration, Elder McKay said.

“Ultimately, that’s why we have such a keen interest in acquiring these [and] making them available to everyone, including — and maybe especially [to] — our own members,” he said.

Elder McKay shared his thoughts during a news conference on Wednesday, March 6, held to answer questions about the Church’s recent purchase of the Kirtland Temple in Ohio — the first temple built in this dispensation — from Community of Christ.

Leaders of both faiths announced the sale on Tuesday, March 5, in a joint statement. The landmark agreement also includes the purchase of several significant buildings in Nauvoo, Illinois, and important manuscripts and artifacts.

Speaking to the media, Elder McKay also referred to a scriptural example of a monument: the 12 stones that Joshua instructed his people “pitch in Gilgal” (Joshua 4:20) after God parted the River Jordan.

The most significant explanation for this monument, Elder McKay said, is found in Joshua 4:24.

That is where Jehovah says the reason for the monument there is so “all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty,” said Elder McKay, quoting the scripture.

He added, “And that, ultimately, is the purpose for all of the historic sites, all of the artifacts, all of the documents that we preserve, so that all the people of the earth, including the people in this Church, might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty.”

Elder Kyle S. McKay, General Authority Seventy, the Church historian and recorder, Matt Grow and Emily Utt  the Church History Department, sit at a table for a news conference about the Kirtland Temple.
Elder Kyle S. McKay, General Authority Seventy and Church historian and recorder, left; Matt Grow, center, and Emily Utt, both from the Church History Department, speak during a news conference on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, about the Church's recent purchase of the Kirtland Temple and other historical sites. | Screenshot from Zoom

Responsible for preserving sacred history

Elder McKay was joined at the news conference by Matt Grow and Emily Utt from the Church History Department.

Grow said that taking over the care of the Kirtland Temple and various historical artifacts is a “sacred trust. … We feel that responsibility and excitement.”

He also said that physical documents will be stored at the Church History Library, while some artifacts — such as the Liberty Jail door and portraits of Joseph and Emma Smith — will go to the Church History Museum, at least initially. A small museum exhibit may be curated in coming weeks.

Other artifacts, such as a sunstone, two moonstones and the cornerstone of the Nauvoo House, will remain in either Kirtland or Nauvoo, “where they have traditionally been to help interpret those sites,” Grow said.

The sale wasn’t an easy decision for leaders of Community of Christ church, which has long been the caretaker of these sites, documents and artifacts. In a reflection video shared online, Community of Christ apostle Lachlan Mackay said parting with the Kirtland Temple and other pieces of the past has been “devastating,” but if he inherited anything from his ancestor Joseph Smith III, it’s his pragmatism.

“I care deeply about our past, but I care even more about our future. … We no longer have the resources, human or financial, to care for these places the way they deserve to be cared for,” he said.

Mackay added that the most important items in this transaction came directly from the Smith family, so in a way, the proceeds from the sale are an “extraordinarily generous” gift from them that will sustain Community of Christ.

“I think they would feel good about that,” he said. “Amid my grief, so do I.”

The sun rises on the Kirtland Ohio Temple in Kirtland, Ohio on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Members react, share experiences

Hundreds of Church members took to social media after the announcement, sharing their excitement, gratitude and testimonies.

Among them was Melody Odell, a member living in Yucaipa, California, who posted on Instagram about her time as a missionary in Kirtland.

In an interview, Odell said she was called to the Ohio Cleveland Mission in 2003 and spent part of her mission living in Hyrum Smith’s home, directly across the street from the Kirtland Temple.

She remembered days spent “poring” over stories of the early Saints, learning from their faith and sacrifices. As someone from a convert family, she considered the early Saints’ history to be her adopted heritage, and she wanted to live in a way that honored them.

Odell called her time in Kirtland “the most purifying, humbling, stretching and rewarding days of my life,” adding that she now draws on those experiences daily as a mother.

“Kirtland is a place where you take a break from the world to focus on your soul, [the] truths of who you are and who you can become,” she said. “That is what it was for me: a proving ground where I drew strength from the early Saints to be stronger and more dedicated in my faith.”

Odell isn’t the only former missionary who is grateful for her time in Kirtland. Laura Taylor, who served in the Ohio Cleveland Mission, spent the summer of 2006 serving among several of Kirtland’s historical sites.

She said it was “so significant” to walk where Joseph Smith walked, stand in places where sacred events occurred and see visitors feel the Spirit.

“My heart still feels like a tiny piece of it is in Kirtland,” said Taylor, of Duvall, Washington. When she heard the Church had bought the Kirtland Temple, she “cried happy tears.”

Now, she’s looking forward to visiting Kirtland again, where she and her husband will share its special spirit with their children. “I hope they can ... feel the importance of Christ and His love when they’re there.”

Heather Porter Sulzer, a member living in northern California, also served in the Ohio Cleveland Mission, where she was assigned to Kirtland during the winter of 1995-1996. While there, she felt the “powerful spirit” of the early Saints, a feeling that she said has never left her.

One particularly special memory for Sulzer comes from the Christmas of 1995, when her mission received permission to hold a missionwide conference in the Kirtland Temple.

“I remember sitting in the upper seats in the choir as we sang ‘The Spirit of God.’ My entire body and soul felt transcended,” she said. “The Spirit bore witness that this was indeed a holy, sacred house of God.”

The sun rises on the Kirtland Ohio Temple and the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, Ohio on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Some Church members shared family history ties to the Kirtland Temple. Kevin G. Webb, a member living in Richmond, Utah, said he’s a descendant of John Tanner, an early convert who gave significant financial support to the young Church.

When Webb learned about the Church’s purchase of the Kirtland Temple, he had “tears of joy” as he thought about the sacrifices of his ancestor.

“[John Tanner] consecrated all, ... and thousands of his descendants, myself included, have been the beneficiaries of those blessings,” Webb said. “The Kirtland Temple stands as a monument and witness that this is indeed the restored Church of Jesus Christ.”

Laura Robinson Thacker, a member living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, also thought about her ancestors when she heard about the Kirtland Temple. Descended from early Church members such as Wilford Woodruff and Zera Pulsipher, Thacker said she’s long wished to ask her ancestors about their experiences.

“The fact that I can walk down the streets of Kirtland and Nauvoo where my ancestors walked, lived, served and worshipped fills me with so much joy and makes me want to live up to the covenants that I have made so that I can show how grateful I am for their sacrifice in bringing me the gospel all these years later,” Thacker said.

Sanna-Miina Myllymäki Palmer, a member originally from Finland who now lives in Alberta, said she joined the Church at age 18 and dreamed of the day when she could visit Church history sites. That finally happened during the summer of 2019, when she toured the Kirtland Temple, stood in the Sacred Grove and made a variety of other Church history-related stops.

While in Kirtland, Palmer said she was especially struck by the upper room in the Newel K. Whitney store, where Joseph Smith received the revelation on the Word of Wisdom. “I felt overcome by the Spirit. ... [Touring Church history sites] was an experience our family will always treasure.”

Related Stories
Church purchases Kirtland Temple, other historic buildings and artifacts from Community of Christ
Read a timeline of the history The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed